The History of Sicily

The Napoleonic Wars (1800-1813)

In 1800, Napoleon won decisive victories over the Austrians, pushing them out of the war. He then signed a peace treaty with Naples, which agreed to surrender the island of Elba and to remove its troops from the Papal States. The Neapolitans also granted the French the right to quarter their troops in the cities of southern Italy.

In 1802, now the leader of France, Napoleon signed a peace treaty with Britain and in, that year, Ferdinand returned to Naples. In May of 1803, however, hostilities between British and the French resumed. Napoleon put pressure on the Neapolitans to remove Lord Acton from their court, and he was eventually sent to Sicily, where he continued to advise Ferdinand, albeit from afar. In 1804, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French and, in 1805, King of Italy.

In December 1805, after hearing of Napoleon’s defeat of the Russians and Austrians, Ferdinand embarked for Sicily. In February 1806, the French entered Naples, with Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), Napoleon’s brother, becoming the Emperor’s emissary. In that same year, a British force left Palermo for Calabria, where they prevented the French from invading Sicily. At that point, the island had become a British protectorate, occupied by over 10,000 British troops.

Sicilian support for Ferdinand soon dwindled. Many native government officials lost their posts to Neapolitan transplants, and the King had gone as far as to insult the populace by destroying some of the mosaics in Palermo’s Palatine Chapel, simply to make his entrance into the church easier.

In the meantime, the British garrison increased to 17,000. This was not all bad, however, for the foreigner’s presence did much to bolster the Sicilian economy. Joseph Bonaparte was named King of Naples in 1807, but when Charles IV of Spain (1748-1819) abdicated, Napoleon transferred him to Madrid, replacing him with Joachim Murat (1765-1815), his brother-in-law, who, in 1808, was proclaimed “King of the Two Sicilies.”

Meanwhile in Sicily, Queen Maria Carolina dreamed of returning to Naples. There were even rumors that she had sent letters to Paris in an attempt to conspire with Napoleon. There was no love lost between the royal family and the Sicilian barons; in 1810, the latter made overtures to the British ambassador, Lord Amherst (1773-1857), asking for his support in securing a constitution for Sicily based on the British model. Amherst demanded that the King grant greater powers to parliament, but by 1812, relations had gotten so bad that the new British ambassador, Lord William Bentnick (1774-1839), demanded control over all Neapolitan-Sicilian forces as well as the establishment of a parliamentary government that would deprive the King and Queen of power. In 1812, the King turned his titular power over to his son.

By July 1812, a constitution had been approved, and the feudal system that had governed the island for centuries was abolished. The Queen conspired to have the constitution revoked, but her efforts were rebuffed, and in 1813 she left for Vienna, where her son-in-law was emperor. However, the Austrians did not treat her warmly, and she was snubbed even by her granddaughter Maria Luisa, Napoleon’s second wife, who had left her husband after his imprisonment in Elba.


Napoleon Bonaparte